Taro patent discussions advancing

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Gary K. Ostrander, (808) 956-7837
UH Manoa Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education
Posted: May 16, 2006

Senior administration officials from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa are engaged in ongoing discussions on the matter of patents held by the university on improvements to certain varieties of taro.

The following statement includes some background on the issues, along with an update on the discussions. It is issued jointly by UH Mānoa Chancellor Denise Konan and Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Gary K. Ostrander.

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has come to both recognize and appreciate the unique place that taro occupies in the lives and culture of indigenous peoples and in particular our Native Hawaiian community.

The Strategic Plan for the Mānoa campus clearly articulates our desire to be a Hawaiian Place of Learning. Moreover, and perhaps of greater importance, it is imperative that we remain an institution that is culturally sensitive to the greater community around us and to those whose lands we occupy.

As an institution we have only recently come to appreciate the significance of taro as the embodiment of the most sacred of the Hawaiian Gods. To this end, we place a high priority on treatment of taro in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner.

We are committed to resolving the issues that recently arose surrounding three patents that UH holds related to taro. At the same time, we believe that it may be worthwhile to consider the value that science can bring to the preservation of this precious plant.

At this juncture we can unequivocally state the intention of Mānoa to make an exception to the process relating to patenting and licensing surrounding taro.

The patents in question do not relate to genetically modified taro. That is, our faculty member did not create a GMO. This work, and the resulting discoveries, was brought about as a result of one of our faculty members responding to a request from taro growers in Samoa. This was at time when Samoan taro production was reduced by 97 percent as a result of attack by a fungus-like organism. Using traditional breeding techniques he crafted new taros that were resistant to leaf blight. Moreover, as directed by his contract with UH and under the existing agreement between the University of Hawaiʻi Professional Assembly and the UH Board of Regents, he filed a disclosure of this "invention".

Mānoa now must find a way to simultaneously be responsive to our faculty, their union, potential predatory commercial patents, and of no less importance, our greater Native Hawaiian community. Finally, we must also address the appropriate role that science can play in the process. While we recognize the long history of taro cultivation by indigenous people, the very real probability exists that some other disease vector, as occurred in Samoa in the early 1990‘s, can and will decimate taro.

This is not an intractable problem as ultimate responsibility for the management of patents and license agreements rests with the administration. In the coming weeks the administration intends to complete our broad consultative process and determine a strategy for moving forward.